COVID-19 Exposes Problems With Mass Incarceration

Dion McNeil 1

COVID-19 has revealed that mass incarceration was never a good idea.

If lowering the U.S. prison population could reduce the spread of an infectious disease through correctional officers and prison employees going home, would you lower the population? While other outlets are focused on COVID-19 the virus The Daily Counter, who is a team of journalists and not doctors, will discuss how the virus has affected the lives of everyday people and exposes the problems with society.

On October 30, 2019, this author created an animated YouTube video called, “The Horrors of Mass Incarceration.” That video featured information from both The World Health Organization (WHO) and The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that specifically stated that mass incarceration would aid in the spread of a virus. Watch the video below at the 7:54 mark and see the warning that was given by this author almost 7 months ago:


Dr. Awolniyi Awofeso

It isn’t like the warnings weren’t out there. In 2010, Dr. Niyi Awofeso participated in a study to look into the effects of mass incarceration concerning Hepatitis C and Tuberculous. This would mean that 10 years ago Dr. Awofeso would be proven right about the dangers of having highly transmittable diseases being rampant in prison environments. Here is a quote from the synopsis:

“Effects of place or neighborhood—locations where individuals reside, shop, recreate, and work—have been widely studied as sources of environmental influences on individual behaviors, exposures, and physiology, as well as reference points for public health interventions. However, despite modern prisons’ strong influence on the transmission and clinical outcomes of infectious diseases, custodial authorities and public health officials in many countries have yet to implement credible interventions to minimize the adverse impacts prison settings exert on the epidemiology of communicable diseases—particularly concerning inmates. Among many vulnerable populations, prisons are evolving as one of the social institutions that determine their health status and health outcomes.”
Dr. David Alan Wohl

In 2011, Dr. David Alan Wohl, an Infectious Disease Specialist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, published a study that examined the role of prisons and the spread of infectious diseases and pathogens. In the study, Dr. Wohl noted that African American men were particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases while incarcerated due to overcrowding and law enforcement policies. This could partially explain why so many African Americans are suffering from the effects of COVID-19 right now.

Dr. Wohl looked deeply into what could be causing some of the spread of infectious diseases within the U.S. population but also into the African American community. The reason why Dr. Wohl gave the African American community so much attention in this research can be shown in the effects of COVID-19 on Black Americans right now. It isn’t completely certain as to the reason why but African Americans have been hit hard by infectious diseases in the past and currently such as Hepatitis C, Tuberculous and, recently, COVID-19.

Here is a quote from Dr. Wohl’s findings:

“The United States is home to 5% of the global population but accounts for 25% of the world’s prisoners. Per capita, the United States incarcerates more of its own people than any other nation, with 1 in 99 adults currently behind bars, in either a jail or a prison; an additional 4 million people are supervised under parole or probation [1-3]. The consequences of this large-scale incarceration, beyond the considerable financial cost to taxpayers, are multiple and not always obvious. The policies that have led to mass incarceration have affected minorities and those living in poverty the most, and this unevenness in the application of the law has perpetuated economic and other disparities, as ex-offenders struggle to find work, housing, and stable medical care. In addition, the incarceration of a sizable proportion of the community causes societal disruptions that foster the spread of infectious diseases, including HIV.”

In 2016, The Atlantic published a piece discussing how mass incarceration could help spread a virus by denying inmates condoms and preventive medications. Since many inmates are going to have sex no matter what barriers are put into place it would make sense to provide those inmates with condoms. Some could say this would be expensive but most of those inmates will be released, could have a sexually transmitted disease (STD), and then proceed to have sex with people outside of prison.

The undeniable fact is that the state of sanitation and cleanliness in prisons across the United States is lacking. Some could say that the inmates are prisoners and less concern should be given to these prisoners versus the general population. Some people are incarcerated who are innocent. Some are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Should the punishment for smoking or selling cannabis be suffering from the effects of a virus due to unsanitary conditions? Suppose this inmate is a pregnant woman. Is it ethical or moral to subject this pregnant woman to unsanitary conditions? How about the unborn child? Sure, that inmate is responsible for their actions but they could also be innocent. If they are guilty suppose they are mentally ill. At what point does it become unethical to subject potentially pregnant women to COVID-19 due to the effects of mass incarceration?

What about correctional officers, wardens, and other prison employees? Unsanitary conditions could not only help to spread viruses such as COVID-19 but that places every prison employee at risk. One could argue that this is the risk these employees take. The response to that assertion is that everyone takes risks with any employment but that doesn’t mean the wider population shouldn’t consider the struggles of individual Americans. This is especially true if we are talking about a virus that any of those employees could get and spread to you. Not only would those employees potentially spread this virus to you but also to their families which often include children.

Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center

This isn’t hyperbole or an exaggeration. This happened in North Charleston, South Carolina. Yesterday, Nicolas Knight from The Daily Counter published an article that mentioned how a Sheriff’s Deputy working at the Al Cannon Detention Center tested positive for COVID-19. This came after several inmates tested positive for the virus. It would be very difficult to argue that overcrowding didn’t play a role here. Charleston, SC has more inmate beds than any county in the state. Charleston County Assistant Sheriff Mitch Lucas and former Al Cannon Detention Center employee is quoted saying, “We were overcrowded for years. When we first started building the new jail in 2008, we were up in the 2,000 (inmate) range and rated for 661.”

The most troubling part about some of the conditions in correctional facilities in South Carolina can be seen in several lawsuits concerning The South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). In 1990, DJJ was sued in Federal Court due to the agency’s insistence on “warehousing” juveniles and South Carolina’s insistence on locking up children versus alternative measures such as more parental involvement. Many of the things mentioned in the lawsuit such as harsh treatment of juveniles, over-use or any use of solitary confinement for children and alleged abuse continue right now.

On February 5, 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Civil Rights Division published findings concerning the conditions of the Broad River Road Complex that SC DJJ operates. DOJ stated that the conditions of the facilities were lacking which should concern any taxpaying citizen. These are children who were subjected to solitary confinement for offenses such as horse-playing or having playing cards. Some juveniles have stated that they didn’t want to live after those experiences. That child said, “Being in lock-up makes me feel suicidal because I’m claustrophobic. And most of the time were always in a cell. It makes me feel like going through the wall it causes me to be angry, frustrated, and confused.” This isn’t a hardened career criminal. This is a child.

DOJ also stated that conditions at the Broad River Road Complex were unconstitutional and that South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson and Governor Henry McMaster should remedy the situation immediately. Juvenile facilities such as the Broad River Road Complex have been known to be overcrowded. How can these children engage in social-distancing if they’re stacked on top of each other in these facilities?

Now that many local counties, states, and countries are releasing inmates who have minor offenses perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate some of the things we all consider to be “crimes.” Right now, the American people cannot afford to pay meaningless taxes on things that most of the people do not agree with. Most Americans don’t agree with putting someone behind bars for smoking cannabis yet many states still engage in this practice such as South Carolina. Would most people in a state such as South Carolina agree that 1-in-8 people in jail at any given point in the state are locked up for missing child support payments? If the South Carolina Supreme Court recently announced a suspension of child support collections and enforcement then shouldn’t everyone locked up for missing child support payments be released for the safety and welfare of South Carolina’s citizens?

At some point in time, the question will become, “just how badly do you want to prevent the spread of a virus?” The facts are on the table with a specific example given in South Carolina to show that prison population numbers need to decrease. Alternatives to incarceration should be on the table. For example, if someone misses a child support payment then find that person, give them several options including military service, public services such as sanitation work or some other option and if that person refuses then use incarceration. This sounds a lot better than having that person incarcerated, a pandemic occurs and now an entire facility, correctional officers who went home to their families and others are infected.

That suggestion alone could help reduce the 1-in-8 statistic for inmates incarceration for missing child support payments. The people of South Carolina have to pay taxes to keep these people incarcerated. With an arrest record, it’ll be harder for that person to find a job. Now that COVID-19 is upon us it’ll be even tougher than before for anyone to find employment let alone someone with a record. How does this help that inmate’s children?

In conclusion, this virus has been horrible for many people but it has revealed some of the problem points in society. Many of the inmates released due to this pandemic wouldn’t have been released otherwise. Most of the people released had non-violent or not-so-serious offenses. Perhaps this should become the norm? Is it possible that the day and age where the largest stimulus bill in U.S. history was signed maybe taxation should be curved and a good start is letting the pothead out of jail?



One thought on “COVID-19 Exposes Problems With Mass Incarceration

  1. This was a good article. I was curious about what was happening to inmates with the pandemic of Covid-19. Very sad.
    I definitely like that the subject for the article was discussed throughout the article.

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